So this article is about why speed work doesn’t work — at least not for the reasons you think it does.
Speed work defined
For now, let’s define speed work as anything under a 7 RPE. If you complete a set and you could have done 5 or more reps, it counts as speed work. If you’re doing doubles or triples with less than 75%, it probably counts. If you’re doing singles with less than 85%, it probably counts. If this is just a warm-up to your heavier work, then it probably doesn’t count as speed work.
Reason #1: Force output during speed work is crap
If you attempt a squat in a meet and grind it for 15 or 20 seconds, but complete the lift for white lights, yet your competitor completes the same weight in 3 seconds, who wins? Assume both of you move up 5 pounds and miss. The answer is you tie (or win/lose based on bodyweight which is pretty much a tie) because there is NO time component to powerlifting. Despite the name, power (in the physics sense) is not what you care about as a powerlifter. You care about force.
It’s common meathead knowledge that force equals mass times acceleration and many of you can cite Russian manuals that state, in theory, you can maximize force by maximizing the mass on the bar or the acceleration.
I’m here to tell you that doesn’t work in reality.
I’ve tested it. Peak force production is tied to the weight on the bar. Are you trying to maximize force? Add weight. In real life, you won’t be able to accelerate enough to produce force like you can in a max lift. No way around it. Sure, a set done with maximum acceleration will produce more force than one done with an even tempo. But only if the weight on the bar is similar. If you always accelerate maximally, you will produce more force if the weight on the bar is heavier, even though acceleration is less.
For those who want a reason why, here it is. It takes time for your body to ramp up to maximum force (Fmax). In a heavy lift the bar speed is slow enough to get there (or get close). In a light lift, the bar speed is too fast for you to have time to get to Fmax.
Force, the most important quality for a powerlifter, is not practiced with speed work. Doing speed work does not produce maximal force. In theory it should, but in real life it doesn’t. My numbers indicate that even at 75% of 1RM (too heavy to be considered “speed weight” by most), force production is still only 85%. When you consider that increasing the weight to 90% or 95% yields near-maximum levels of force production, it’s easy to see that when it comes to practicing your ability to produce force, you can’t beat heavy weights. And if you’re worried about spending too much time with 90-95% loads, please read my previous article “You are not overtrained”. Don’t be scared.
Reason #2: Technique is not perfected
If you have decent form (i.e. You know what good form is and you can demonstrate it with light weight), then speed work will not help you get better. The weights are typically so light that they involve a different motor pattern than will be used on heavy weight. Besides, it makes far more sense to do technique practice with a weight that challenges your technique (and thus requires you to pay attention and practice) than to do technique practice with something easy.
So why do people do it?
Powerlifting is a pretty simple sport. There is force and technique. Not much else plays a role. Speed work can contribute to hypertrophy, but it’s not ideal. So why do people seem to get gains from doing speed work?
First, it’s hard to say that speed work gave them the gains. These programming changes are almost never made in isolation, so it easily could have been some other aspect of training.
- It could have been the increase in frequency. Most lifters go from one heavy squat season a week to one heavy and one light session. In that case I would say that although speed work isn’t ideal, it’s a net win because frequency went up.
- It can also help those who are chronically beat up. Since it typically involves lighter weight, it should cause less structural stress, so it can sometimes result in fewer injuries, which allows people to improve more over time. With that said, I think proper volume management and good general conditioning limits the need for this kind of thing for the vast majority of lifters out there.
- And lastly, it’s a case of good, better, best. Speed work would likely produce results in someone if they were untrained enough. But that doesn’t mean it is ideal.
If you use speed work in your training, I encourage you to gradually migrate to something heavier. Don’t over-complicate it. Just gradually use heavier weights. Your prime work sets need to be at least an 8 RPE if not higher. No need to thank me — your future PR says it all.
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